Loose talk replaces Obama's famed message discipline

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 14, 2008 

CHICAGO — With a penchant for secrecy finely honed during a disciplined campaign, President-elect Barack Obama may well have thought he could continue to control his message as he's hunkered down behind closed doors since he won the election.

Fat chance. There are leaks, leaks and more leaks.

From the immediate accounts about what Obama and President George W. Bush talked about in their private White House meeting to this week's tales that Obama's considering Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, there's been no shortage of unofficial reports about what Obama's said to be doing.

Some of it is wrong. Some may be right. Much of it is intended to force the president-elect's hand or to limit his options. Almost all of it finds its way into print, onto television or onto the Internet.

The rumors, leaks, gossip and speculation are rapidly filling the vacuum left by Obama's quick post-election pivot from public rallies and speeches to back-room meetings in the well-guarded privacy of a nondescript federal office building in downtown Chicago.

Since he won the presidency Nov. 4, Obama has been largely invisible to the public.

He visited the White House, but said nothing to reporters or the public. He laid a wreath Tuesday at a veterans memorial in Chicago but issued only a short written statement. His taped radio address Saturday will be the first time most Americans have heard his voice in eight days, since a short news conference.

Yet if nature abhors a vacuum, news media addicted to stories about Obama and a Washington culture that feeds on information REALLY hate a vacuum.

Thus, within hours of Obama's closed-door Oval Office meeting with Bush on Monday, there were accounts that the president had tried to link an economic stimulus sought by congressional Democrats to a Bush-sought Colombia trade deal.

The White House and then the Obama transition team said that didn't happen. "There was no quid pro quo in the conversation," Obama transition team co-chairman John Podesta said.

Then there was the story about how former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was advising Obama on the transition.

"Secretary Christopher is deeply respected in the United States and throughout the international community," Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said afterward. "However, he is not playing a role in the transition process. There's a lot of disinformation out there."

There also are the many reports of who's being considered for top jobs, in the White House and the Cabinet.

Finally, there are stories about how Obama is pursuing one policy or another, such as one report that he's considering a new national-security court to try detainees whom he might not want to release when he closes the Guantanamo Bay prison as promised.

Obama aides also denied that one.

Where do the leaks come from? Some may well come from Obama advisers. Even if they don't want information to leak out, they'll find it harder to control that discipline as they vet names or policies with interest groups and peers in Congress.

Some come from people who want to see their own names or the names of their bosses on the list. Some want to see someone else shot down.

Throughout, there are interest groups pushing their agendas, such as closing Guantanamo, and sometimes using the tempting bait of "insider" information to get into the media.

"The Washington, D.C., culture lives and thrives on rumors. It's akin to the winter baseball league where there are kinds of rumors about trades, 99 percent of which are not based on any real facts or insider information," said Chris Lehane, a former aide in the Clinton White House.

"It's a place where people make their living trading information, whether it's accurate or not."

Often, it's impossible to know what's true until Obama announces his decision. His aides, for example, have yet to confirm or deny leaks that Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, has been selected as the chief of staff to Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

"There's lots of excitement and interest in who will serve in the Obama Administration," Cutter said.

"Until final decisions are made by the one person who can make them, President-elect Obama, we unfortunately can't assist in that speculation by confirming or denying alleged names or positions."

Added Lehane: "There is so much speculation that is based on very little information that most of it should be taken with an enormous grain of salt."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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